Our lives may be colored by a particular feeling or mood, accompanied by certain thoughts or beliefs that seem to recur. In my own life I have noticed an automatic emotional reaction to the unexpected: this moment of fear, a sense of “Uh oh, what’s about to happen?” Some part of me seems primed to expect the worst. When someone important to me says, “Oh, I want to talk to you,” then I feel myself preparing for something awful. With time I have been able to notice this, take in a breath, and choose to be open to whatever is about to happen. Often these conversations end up interesting, helpful, beneficial, or transformative, but still this part of me prepares for a catastrophe that may never happen.
Analytical psychology may call this a complex; Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) calls it a negative cognitive schema. Strict CBT theorists say that the thought causes the feeling, the thought that “something bad is always around the corner,” for example. I have a minor quibble in that I think sometimes those feelings are activated by certain conditions and then justify themselves with relevant thoughts. Either way, these thoughts and feelings happen together. We can allow them to continue making each other bigger and bigger. We can notice the automatic responses, take a deep breath, and look at what is happening with curiosity.
Thoughts and feelings are like the two wings of a bird or plane. We may want to elevate one and diminish the other, but both can help or harm us. If one is not working properly, the other suffers. If both are faulty, good luck getting off the ground. I encourage a willingness to listen and hold both with interest.
I cannot get rid of that moment of fear, and I’ve tried! What I can do is notice what the fear wants and does: my muscles start to constrict, heart rate accelerates, I start preparing for defense or flight. The fear is saying: something unexpected is happening, and I do not know what’s coming. The fear is bringing me to attention and presence in the moment, but it wants to go further into a narrower room. Fear wants to be ready for something bad, and intellectually I understand from experience and insight that what’s coming could be something wonderful, something neutral, or something that I know I can handle because I have survived so much already. If the thoughts start saying, “Don’t be stupid, you always act like this, nothing bad’s going to happen,” then I’ve become locked in an inner debate that will only escalate the inner tension.
Fear is not trying to hear any of that. Fear knows something bad could always happen. Fear is not wrong. Reason is not wrong either. This is an unwinnable inner argument. My best option is not to take sides, but to make room for every part of me. Time to breathe, slowly and consciously, letting my muscles relax. Breathe, and bring my attention to what’s happening, to the conversation at hand. If I can continue breathing, I know that I am alive, I know that I can get through what’s happening.
I speak of fear but that is only one example. You may respond to everything with irritation or anger: hurt, inconvenience, impatience, the unexpected. You may respond by becoming numb or disconnected to your experience, feeling lost in a fog or like you’re floating somewhere away from your body. You may respond by focusing only on whatever feels good in the moment, tuning out everything else.
(Have you ever felt intense desire or affection for someone or something who ended up being bad for you? Did you ever, while feeling those feelings, have moments of doubting thoughts that you ignored by focusing on what you thought was good and happy about the relationship? After the relationship was over, did you ever kick yourself or ask your friends “Why didn’t you warn me?” when you were warned, in so many ways?)
What I advocate is effort to work with both as each bringing something important to the table, but each potentially being misleading in some way. This can feel difficult to work with, takes time and practice, and there is always an opportunity to practice. This way of being does not offer a sense of security by stating rules that are always true, though you may come to discover your own inner set of rules that makes sense for you. Enter into a conversation with yourself, constantly unfolding, in which many voices have a chance to speak, and each has value. The voice that says “This is wonderful!” and the voice that says “I have doubts” are both welcome and heard, though neither gets to steer the plane alone.